Monday, August 22, 2011

Darlinghurst Blog: Detritus: Underbelly Razor Premiere

For someone who watches television about once a month I was surprisingly excited about the new series of Underbelly, which is based on Larry Writer's excellent 2001 book, Razor. And while there were way too many advertisements, including a bizarre promo for Nine News's upcoming ''Razor Riches'' story on property prices in Darlinghurst (''It's criminal!''), I was captivated by the premiere episode last night. Screentime have done an excellent job in recreating 1920s and 30s Darlinghurst and judging by the number of hits this blog received last night (about four times the daily number in the space of two hours) by people googling Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine et al, the show has sparked new interest in this colourful time of Sydney's history. 

Last night's premiere, which began at 8.30pm, featured many of the typical Underbelly traits: narration by Caroline Craig, sex, nudity and violence, but perhaps because the characters were in period costume it didn't seem to be as offensive or gratuitous as in past series. If you haven't seen it yet and are reluctant to watch it based on the previous Underbellies, I would have to say that if you were to ignore the Craig narration it is essentially an historical television series - with dazzling sets and costumes - based on Writer's book.

Anna McGahan's naughty North Shore school-girl Nellie Cameron was a joy to watch and Chelsie Preston Crayford's comic portrayal of Tilly Devine was fun, but it was Danielle Cormack's Kate Leigh that I found the most convincing of the three female leads. That could also be because Leigh, or Queen Kate as she was dubbed in Underbelly, came across as the more serious and wiser of the trio. I also liked her king consort, Wally Tomlinson, played with a big heart by John Batchelor.

The male cast (above) too was excellent, especially because there were so many big, strong, rugged looking actors who looked great in period hats and suits.

Jeremy Lindsay Taylor as Norman Bruhn (above) was a master casting stroke as he looked so much like the real razor-ganger. Lindsay Taylor's performance was impeccable too; I couldn't fault it. It was so compelling he could have stolen the show from the three women leads, so for their sake, it's a good thing he will be killed off soon as the narrator foreshadowed last night. Although, it will be a damn shame for viewers if they kill him off too early. What a great face he had; I couldn't take my eyes off it. 

The show focuses on the intense rivalry between Devine and Leigh, but there are also the coppers who fought to control the crime that was flourishing on Darlinghurst's streets. Lucy Wigmore, who plays Australia's first policewoman, Lillian May Armfield, lends a strong moral presence and I look forward to seeing her character develop. Wigmore also had one of the best lines of the night when she encountered Nellie Cameron, still in her school uniform, during a raid at Devine's brothel. ''Is this some kind of costume?'' she asked, perplexed.

It wasn't just the actors and storyline that had me transfixed for two hours (a rare feat) but the sets, location, extras and costumes. It was a treat for the eyes. Nellie Cameron's 1920s Darlinghurst apartment was a dream and would probably rent for about $400 a week these days. Cameron also seems to have the best wardrobe of silk underwear, stockings, low-waisted flapper dresses, big, long necklaces and pretty cloches. There was a memorable scene of her dancing around her apartment in her big silk knickers, old fashioned bra and embroidered shawl.

The set-designers and script-writers have really captured the small details of the era. There are hand-painted wall signs, fruit-sellers's carts, rabbit-sellers, ice-men, dunny-men and plenty of dunny-lanes, which prove a perfect location for fight-scenes. Redfern's The Block (which is about to be demolished and developed) also worked brilliantly as a stand-in for Darlinghurst's Palmer Street, with its row of Victorian-era terraces. 
The Sydney Harbour Bridge, mid-build, is a nice touch, as is the Sydney skyline, which is shown as clumps of industrial chimneys pumping out smoke. When I met Larry Writer on Saturday he was telling me that back in the Razor days there were no garbage collectors so residents would simply build a little fire in their yards and burn all their waste. As a result Sydney was a haze of smoke, which also became the scent of the city. This knowledge proved quite valuable to the makers of Underbelly who were able to simply add some digital smoke in post-production to mask the sight of Sydney's tallest building, Centrepoint Tower, which was built long after the Razor-gang days.

I'd be really keen to know what you, occasional readers of my blog, thought of last night's show! And will you be tuning in next week?

Underbelly: Razor
13 Episodes
Airs 8.30pm Sundays
Nine Network


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to next week's ep.
I wish i had the DVD box set, i would have watched at leat another ep last night. So i suppose that says something. Also the 2 hours seemed more like 1 hour.

Anonymous said...

I loved it!! Agree with everything you said, and will def be watching all of the series. That is of course if they don't lose the plot and get stupid or boring.

Violet Tingle said...

I'm glad you both liked it as much as I did, but yes, the ads were a bore, so I wait with anticipation for the boxed set. I also liked the old-style musical interpretation of the Mentals's Nips Are Getting Bigger. Very Baz Luhrmann-esque

Anonymous said...

Hey Violet... first time reader and lovin your blog... but I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed by Underbelly Razor. I have no problem with them using a Mentals track but having it played by a band in shot just smacked of commercialism to me. That's very different to using it over a montage of footage the way they did with the promos. I was also surprised Larry Writer let them write the script saying Norman Bruhn introduced the razor to Sydney - Tilly had done time for a razor attack even before he left Melbourne. And I also think it would have been more interesting to leave us wondering who'd shot Bruhn. The murder is still unsolved so no-one knows for sure it was Frank Green. REally want to see how they handle Bumper in episodes to come.

Anonymous said...

Hi Violet

Lot of memories from your blog.

Some time ago I decided to write a blog entry on my experience of working at Tilly's Palmer St. brothel - but after it became a restaurant in the 70s. For some reason, I soon felt I had to fictionalise what started as a straight account, but the actual experiences weren't far removed from the stories. I changed John Stuart Regan's name, for example, but the excavation fiasco really happened. Anyway, I thought you might find it interesting.

Also in the seventies, through friends around the East, I got to know someone we referred to as Sid Devine, supposedly Tilly's son. I've since been told he may have been an adoptee, since Tilly never gave birth to a Sid. Though I got on all right with Sid, he was not the sort of person you could question about his past or parents. (A lot of people did not get on with Sid.) Any ideas?

That blog entry I made a couple of year's ago, in a blog I now seldom update, has suddenly been getting a lot of hits. People seem fascinated by Kate and Tilly. No doubt they are popping in to your blog at an increasing rate.

Anyway, Darlinghurst is a different place again since the seventies. I'll check your blog periodically in lieu of a stroll through the old streets.


Rob Townshend

Violet Tingle said...

"Not the sort of person you could question about his past or parents."
Mr Townshend, your Sid sounds like my kind of man. And I love the stories on your blog post; you have really brought that shady past to life and I think I recognise some of those characters. I wish sometimes that I had been there then when it was all crime scenes and craziness.
On another part of that Mosomoso blog, I like that you have referenced Charmian Clift, ie Walk to the Paradise Gardens. Clift is one of my favourite writers and role models. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing that link and your stories. I would love to repost it on my blog, please contact me: if you are up for it. Best wishes, Violet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Violet. I just tried to email you but the address keeps getting rejected.

Glad you enjoyed the little account. I felt I had to hide the names of the journo, the business identity, John Regan etc. Then I caught myself dramatising a bit; but everything described did happen, more or less. It's not as made up as it sounds. 191 Palmer Street is now someone's home. After Tilly, it was turned into a restaurant by a bizarre French lady called Madeleine, and it was the original blackboard restaurant. I worked there as a mis-manager in 1974, two owners later.

I have a niece who works not far from the old streets, and I pop into Stanley Street for a coffee with her when in Sydney. At least that part of East Sydney has kept its flavour and familiar smell. We're all sorry we don't have my late father to quiz about the whole Darlo scene. He was captain of a corvette during the war, something of a McHale's Navy type and a real denizen of the Cross

Feel free to do what you like with the memoir. It was due for publication in the National Times back in the eighties, then something happened to that paper. It's never been published, so feel free to use it.

All the best

Rob Townshend

Jane Ashworth said...

Does anybody happen to know the name of the music that is playing when Nellie is dancing around her apartment in her lingerie? Im guessing so,e kind of swing type music?